“Big Tim” Sullivan –  The Corrupt Reformer

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Timothy Sullivan (1862-1913) had a rough life, but this made him tough and prepared him for business and politics in New York City. He was one among ten children and lost his father at the age of five. His mother subsequently married an alcoholic who abandoned the family. Starting at the age of eight Sullivan worked as a shoe shiner and newspaper seller. By his mid-twenties, “Big Tim” (he was a large man) Sullivan owned multiple saloons and was well on his way up the Democratic Tammany Hall totem pole of power, as boss Richard Croker recognized his organizational abilities. Although married, he slept around with showgirls and had at minimum six illegitimate children. Sullivan’s one child with his wife, a daughter, died as an infant.

“Big Tim” Sullivan ran both legitimate businesses and rackets in Manhattan and served in the New York State Assembly from 1887 to 1893 and in the State Senate from 1894 to 1902. Due to New York’s status as a swing state in the late 19th century, his and Tammany Hall’s efforts were important for electing presidents. In 1902, Sullivan both became the head of the Tammany Hall machine and was elected to Congress, but he didn’t do much in his time there: he was a member of a minority party and had greater business in New York City than Washington. He stated his dissatisfaction with his role: “There’s nothing in this Congressman business. They know ‘em in Washington. The people down there use ‘em as hitchin’-posts. Every time they see a Congressman on the streets they tie their horses to him” (MacNeil, 120). He resigned in 1906 to devote his attention to state politics, returning to the state Senate.

In addition to his business and entertainment interests (building of theaters with William Fox…yes THAT Fox), Sullivan became quite wealthy off of graft, making roughly $100,000 a year off it as well as being part of a bipartisan group in the state Senate that could be bribed to kill legislation. He also received kickbacks and payments from illegal operations for permission to work in the city. Sullivan mentored Arnold Rothstein, the mobster mastermind of the rigging of the 1919 World Series, who ran the second floor of Sullivan’s casino. Sullivan’s forces were known for engaging in practically every dirty trick in the book. He had a way of turning one voter into four with voters he called “repeaters”: “When they vote with their whiskers on, you take ’em to a barber and scrape off the chin fringe. Then you vote ’em again with side lilacs and moustache, then to the barber again, off comes the sides and you vote ‘em a third time with just a moustache. If that ain’t enough, and the box can stand a few more ballots, clean off the moustache and vote ‘em plain face. That makes every one of them good for four votes” (Carlson). Sullivan also did not shy away from employing violence. He “employed street-level, physical intimidation at the ballot box both to control and to expand the suffrage” and was accused of “interfering with patrolmen assigned to maintain order at polling places and of physically beating Republican poll watchers who challenged voters’ credentials” (Mohl, 137-138). Sullivan also used gangsters to bully Republicans out of the polls. However, neither party was inclined to push the matter as both were involved in election chicanery. Sullivan was also closely affiliated with organized crime, being sure to get his cut for activity allowed in his area. With this corruption came benefits for his constituents: they were given jobs, coal in the winter, Christmas turkey dinners, and shoes. All Sullivan wanted in exchange was votes, and he got ‘em. He also at times embraced reform. Sullivan mentored social activist and later Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, supported limitations on hours for women in factories, supported women’s suffrage, and pushed the first gun control measure in New York called the Sullivan Law, “making it a felony to carry a concealed weapon and requiring the licensing and registration of small firearms” (Mohl, 145) . However, he was not above using the latter against his foes and to the benefit of himself and his lackeys.

In 1912, tragedy struck in Sullivan’s life again. In July, he began suffering serious mental illness, including paranoid delusions, hallucinations, and manic depression, the product of advanced syphilis he had caught from his years of sleeping around. Sullivan was under constant fear that his food was being poisoned and in September, his estranged wife died, which pushed him over the edge. He was institutionalized and although he won election to Congress, in January 1913 a jury declared him “a lunatic and incapable of managing himself or his affairs” and he was never sworn in (Mohl, 146). In April 1913, he moved in with his brother Patrick and was under the care of male nurses. On August 31st, he ran away and was run over by a train, his body being discovered two weeks later. In death, “Big Tim” Sullivan was still popular: 75,000 people attended his funeral procession.

References

Carlson, P. (October 2018). American Schemers: ‘Big Tim’ Sullivan, ‘King of the Bowery.’ Historynet.

Retrieved from

https://www.historynet.com/american-schemers-big-tim-sullivan-king-of-the-bowery.htm

MacNeil, N. (1963). Forge of democracy: The House of Representatives. Philadelphia, PA: David McKay Company.

Mohl, R.A. (1997). The making of urban America. Lanham, MD: SR Books.

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